116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
PALO — The Linn County Board of Supervisors voted 2-1 in its first reading of a rezoning ordinance that would allow construction of two utility-scale solar projects near Palo to commence.
The vote was along party lines, as it was during each of the three readings for a Coggon solar project earlier this year. Democrats Ben Rogers and Stacey Walker voted yes and Republican Louie Zumbach voted no to rezone the area from agricultural to agricultural with a solar overlay, allowing for the project to be built.
Zumbach made a motion to add a negotiable setback, allowing for up to 1,250 feet. The county’s setback rule is 300 feet for utility-scale solar projects. The motion was voted down 2-1.
“I think the 1,250 would allow someone to have solar on the farm and allow neighbors to be treated more fairly,” Zumbach said. “I think it’s important for my colleagues to remember we are the representatives of rural Linn County. We owe the people a fair shake.”
The supervisors will meet again Tuesday night at 6 p.m. in Palo for the second reading. The third and final reading is scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 6. All of the meetings are being held at the Palo Community Center, 2800 Hollenbeck Rd.
There was little discussion among board members before they voted, but the supervisors did ask many questions of developer NextEra. The board asked about screening for non-participating landowners, chemicals within the solar panels and who takes responsibility if a natural disaster blows panels into neighbors’ yards.
While NextEra will develop the project, Alliant Energy filed a proposal with the Iowa Utilities Board to buy the large-scale solar project from NextEra and further develop it into the state’s largest solar and battery storage facility, if that plan receives approval.
Representatives of NextEra and Alliant Energy told the supervisors that in the case of a natural disaster like the August 2020 derecho, anyone who sustains damage from any of the companies’ property would “be made whole.”
The Duane Arnold Solar I project proposes to use 316 acres of an 857-acre area to place photovoltaic solar arrays capable of generating up to 50 megawatts of energy.
The Duane Arnold Solar II project would use 815 acres of a 1,780-acre area to place solar arrays capable of generating up to 150 MW. It would also include a 75-MW, four-hour battery energy storage facility. The battery energy storage system will have about 96 20 x 8-foot containers that will house 7,040 lithium-ion battery modules.
Speakers share support, urge opposition
Public comment at the meeting lasted several hours, as has become commonplace for county meetings surrounding the topic.
Palo Mayor Eric Van Kerckhove pointed out that the Palo City Council voted unanimously to adopt a resolution opposing the NextEra project.
“The projects are directly in the path of Palo’s growth. The general consensus of the citizens of Palo, (they) have expressed to the council that the community is opposed to the development,” he said. “The City of Palo respectfully requests the supervisors deny the requests.”
Rick Hannen, a retired farmer who lives near Center Point, said he wishes his land was within project boundaries so he could participate.
“I would make a lot more money,” he said. “But we have a responsibility to the world. It’s important. I want my grandkids and their kids to know that I spoke up to do the right thing for the environment.”
NextEra representatives have said they plan to have the Palo projects operational by December 2024. Construction is projected to begin in the first quarter of 2023, if the projects are approved.
NextEra, which has operated in Iowa since 1999 and has 12 wind farms in the state, said it plans to invest $800 million in the solar project, including $50 million paid to landowners for voluntary easements over the project’s 30-year life span. It would be the company’s first solar project in Iowa.
The application for the Palo solar projects was submitted in February. It includes site plans, a decommissioning plan, economic and land-use analysis, vegetation management plan, agricultural impact mitigation plan, setback analysis and a screening plan along with other documents. The project is estimated to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by about 9.49 million metric tons per year.
Linn County Planning and Development Director Charlie Nichols said county staff recommended approval of the project with the county’s current stipulations. Those include a 300-foot setback from non-participating landowners.
Last month, the Linn County Planning and Zoning Commission voted 4-3 to recommend approval of the zoning change.
This is the second utility-scale solar project the county has considered this year. In January, the supervisors approved developer Clenera’s Coggon project in a 2-1 vote after planning and zoning commission members voted 6-1 to recommend denial.
Progress on the 640-acre solar farm near Coggon is on hold while a court resolves a case brought against the supervisors by a family who lives near the site.
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